February 16, 2017:
Russia is the latest nation to adopt the American practice of creating aviation units with helicopters equipped and crews trained for special operations missions. These units concentrate on special operations missions and answer only to special operations commanders. But rather than putting all the special operations helicopters in a few large units the Russians are creating a training program to prepare experienced helicopter pilots to use existing transport helicopters equipped with the special equipment that enables them to fly at night and in bad weather. These pilots and their helicopters will be assigned to ten or more detachments of “special operations aviation” that will be stationed around the country to support special operations units that are similarly dispersed. Many other countries, like Australia, Britain, Canada, France, Italy and Japan created units similar to the American 160
Aviation Regiment. So has the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy, mostly for combat rescue missions they are called on to perform.
American commandos and Special Forces have had their own air force; the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, since 1981.The 160th began by converting the aviation brigade of the 101st Airborne Division. This involved adding night flying gear to most of the helicopters and later additional electronics and special weapons. By 2001 the 160th had 1,600 personnel and over a hundred manned and unmanned aircraft. They were nicknamed the Night Stalkers and had proved so effective that after 2001 the army (to which the 160th belongs) doubled the size of the unit. That was mainly accomplished by adding additional battalions to the regiment. By 2006, the 160th had over 3,000 personnel and more a billion dollars was spent on this expansion. In the last decade number of personnel shrank by at least ten percent but new aircraft (like a dozen of the new large MQ-1C UAVs) and equipment upgrades were added. The 160th has nearly 200 helicopters and UAVs.
The Night Stalkers are so named because their helicopters are equipped for night flying, and the crews spend a lot of time training at night. The pilots of the 160th are also expert at long range operations. Thus the larger choppers, like the 37 MH-47D Chinooks can refuel in the air. The size and capabilities makes the MH47s makes them very popular so they are being upgraded to the MH-47G standard and another 50 are on order. More MH-60 Black Hawks will also be bought.
The new equipment on the MH-47G includes a radar that shows terrain below and allows safer flight in all weather and at night. New cockpit controls and displays that reduce pilot workload and make it easier to keep on top of things. A new and improved forward-looking infrared radar (FLIR). A 7.62mm six barreled machine-gun (a Gatling gun type) that can fire up to 66 rounds a second. The MH-47G has structural and equipment improvements that increase chances of surviving attack or a crash. There are also larger fuel tanks.
The Russian and American approaches are not that different because the American special operations aircraft operate usually operate in small detachments while supporting operations all over the planet. But the rest of the time the components of the 160th are based in three locations in the United States, which is more efficient for training, maintenance and morale.